Oscar Vault Monday – Johnny Belinda, 1948 (dir. Jean Negulesco)
I first saw this film in the weeee hours of the morning a few days into January of 2011. It was about six months into my new-found obsession with Lew Ayres and it was one of the films that really solidified my undying love for him. It’s a pretty racy film for 1948 and holds up quite wonderfully nearly seventy years later. It’s also one of the most nominated films in Academy history. Johnny Belinda was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, winning one: Best Sound, Best Score, Best Film Editing, Best B&W Cinematography, Best B&W Art Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor Charles Bickford, Best Supporting Actress Agnes Moorehead, Best Actor Lew Ayres, Best Actress Jane Wyman (won), Best Director and Best Picture. The other films up for Best Picture that year were The Red Shoes, The Snake Pit, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and winner Hamlet.
Jean Negulesco cut his teeth directing shorts in the early 1940s before graduating to features in 1944. He’s directed several films that I really love, including 1946’s Three Strangers and Humoresque, 1953’s How To Marry a Millionaire and 1954’s Best Picture nominee Three Coins in the Fountain, though his only Best Director nomination came for his work on Johnny Belinda.
Jane Wyman is phenomenal in this film as the titular Belinda, a deaf-mute who lives in a small town off the East coast of Canada. Wyman won the Academy Award for her performance in this film, in which she doesn’t speak a word. It’s all in her eyes – she’s got some of the most expressive eyes to ever grace the silver screen. Belinda goes through quite a transformation throughout the film, all of which Wyman manages to express through her face and body language. Wyman was nominated for Best Actress three other times, for The Yearling (1947), The Blue Veil (1951) and Magnificent Obsession (1954).
Love of my life Lew Ayres plays Dr. Robert Richardson, who befriends Belinda after he moves to the town. He teaches her sign language, but also through his kindness, he teaches her independence. Despite his popularity in the 1930s, this was Lew Ayres only Oscar nomination and served as the film that launched his comeback after the scandal caused by his conscientious objector status during World War II. Ayres, as always, is ahead of his time in his style of actin, immersing himself fully in the passion of the role. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to see him in a film on the big screen when they first premiered.
Johnny Belinda was one of the first films to discuss American Sign Language, despite having been around for over 100 years. Actually, when you think about it, there’s really a small amount of films that use sign language, despite its prevalence in society. A good example of sign language in a film that isn’t a major plot point, but rather just part of the characters and their average lives is 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Charles Bickford is great as Belinda’s gruff, but loving father. Bickford excels in roles where he plays an everyman, and this film allows him one of his richest performances. Bickford was nominated for Best Supporting Actor three times: The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) and Johnny Belinda.
Agnes Moorehead is one of the great unsung character actresses of all time. Unsung in that other than your knowledgable classic film (and Bewitched) fans, she isn’t that well-known, despite giving flawless performances in countless films. In this film she plays Bickford’s tough-of-nails sister. Moorehead received four Best Supporting Actress nominations, though she never won: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Mrs. Parkington (1944), Johnny Belinda (1948) and Hush. . .Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).
Jan Sterling is so fabulous always. This was her first credited role and she attacks it with same gusto she always does. Sterling is probably best known for her performance in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, but I highly recommend you seek out more of her work. She was nominated for an Academy Award for 1954’s The High and the Mighty.
A major plot point int he film comes when fellow townsman Locky (Stephen McNally) gets a bit too drunk at a function, corners Belinda in barn and brutally rapes her. You don’t see the act (obviously, since it is 1948), but it’s almost more shocking that way. You see the fear in Wyman’s eyes as McNally lumbers towards her. It’s harrowing. The rest of the film follows the aftermath of this event; how lies and shame can ruin lives, and how love and forgiveness can overcome almost anything. The latter idea may not always be true to life, but it’s important to see them in film in order to hope, since hope and a belief in the power of the human spirit is really everything.
Posted on June 10, 2013, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged 1948, Agnes Moorehead, Charles Bickford, Jan Sterling, Jane Wyman, Jean Negulesco, Johnny Belinda, Lew Ayres, Stephen McNally. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.